Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting his Kid into College
By Andrew Ferguson
(Simon & Schuster, 228 pages, $25)
For a majority of Americans a college degree remains the first-class ticket to the Good Life. The pathway to opportunity. The first rung on the ladder of success. The key to unlock a financially secure future. (Pick your favorite hackneyed metaphor.)
That's what the higher education industry wants us to believe anyway, and as long as the majority continues to believe this we have little choice but to buy the $200,000 ticket and take the ride.
In Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, Andrew Ferguson takes us on a year-long journey through this Republic of Absurdistan -- the author's pet name for the college application process. It's enough to make one violently carsick.
Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, gives us the idiocies of the college "proctological" essay where self-absorbed teens are forced to share their most intimate and embarrassing moments with anonymous admissions reps, who will decide not only their fate, but the fate of the nation. And the first lesson tomorrow's leaders must learn is how to effectively market themselves like any other surplus commodity.
We learn that in these days of universal higher education, attending a select college is one of the few ways status-starved meritocrats can still thumb their elitism in our faces. We meet the SuperKids, students who have gotten straight A's their entire lives (no trick in these days of grade inflation), who have founded nonprofits and charitable foundations and spent the last five summers curing AIDS patients in Honduras.
Along the way, Ferguson documents educators' never-ending attempt to scrub the SAT of bias. In one of the more enlightening chapters, he answers the SAT's critics who say the test is designed by white men to favor white men. Or, as one opponent put it: The SAT only measures the size of a student's house. (The critics choose, however, to ignore the fact that Asian immigrants continually outperform white students.) Ferguson's sound conclusion: the rich will always have an advantage on the SAT, as they do in life in general.
Ferguson immerses himself in the literature of the higher-education industry where every piece of advice is contradicted by another, and the Principle of Constant Contradiction is in full force. He shows how college administrators game the system and fudge the numbers to increase their all-important rankings in the best colleges lists. "We encourage everyone to apply, so we can turn down 90 percent of you and keep our acceptance rates nice and low! Whoops, did I say that out loud?"
THE JOVIAL ATMOSPHERE of Absurdistan darkens when we arrive at the money chapter. Here the process turns sinister. And the reader -- many of whom will be going through similar tribulations with their 17-year-olds -- shares in Ferguson's frustration and pain. This is the ivy-covered realm of oily college administrators, the used car salesmen of the education industry, who have managed to convince a nation of 18-year-olds to go $80 billion in debt annually, and to enter adulthood with an average debt load of $22,000.
Ferguson recalls how, in his day, college tuition was wholly affordable. An industrious lad could pay his way through college selling magazine subscriptions. The tuition at the most select school used to account for a mere 15 percent of the average family's median income. Today that "investment" is nearing 60 percent. Before long it will be double the median family income.
Why the dramatic increase? Because colleges can get away with it. Most of us don't have the option (or don't think we have the option) of not attending college. Worse, higher education has become like the health care system where the ordinary rules of the free market do not apply and where there is no incentive to cut costs. Simply put, the people consuming the services are not paying for the services. As one financial expert explains: "The self-regulating system of supply and demand breaks down. Normally, an increase in price reduces demand, which in turn moderates prices. In higher ed, that doesn't happen. When the price rises, subsidies increase."
Learning? It plays hardly a role at American colleges, where only 26 cents of every dollar spent goes to actual classroom instruction. College, is in fact, little more than a long, expensive, and ineffective jobs training program.
Sadly, for the foreseeable future, there appears no alternative to this quackery. The best we can do is educate ourselves about the degraded higher education industry. Andrew Ferguson's memoir/exposé/self-help guide, is an advanced course at a ridiculously affordable price.
(For TAS's earlier review of Crazy U, by John R. Coyne Jr., which ran in the June issue of The American Spectator, click here.)
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